Karen Long Sings Praises of Colm Toibin's 'Testament of Mary'

December 10th, 2012 4:57 PM

As we at NewsBusters have noticed, Advent and Lent seem to be the times of year that the liberal secular media loves to tweak devout Christians with attacks on historic, orthodox Christian teaching. The latest example is the media being abuzz over Irish playwright and novelist Colm Toibin's "The Testament of Mary."

The "silent, obedient, observant" Mary of Scripture that has "echoed down" through church history is ripped apart by "the masterful Irish writer Colm Toibin" who "puts a jackhammer to the cozy, safe, Christmas-card version" of the Mother of God, gushed Karen Long of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in a December 7 Religion News Service piece accessible at the Washington Post's "On Faith" section.

Of course, there's a huge difference between two-dimensional "Christmas-card" renditions of the Virgin Mary and what we could reasonably glean of her from biblical accounts, but Toibin is no biblical scholar nor does it appear that the Mary he's writing about exists in a timeline in which Mary is convinced her son Jesus has been raised from the dead. Surely the pain and grief of seeing her son crucified naked on a Roman cross as the crowds jeered and mocked him is so powerful that even the subsequent glorious resurrection might never completely salve that pain, but Toibin's Mary seems to inhabit a world in which Jesus was not truly resurrected and she's nothing but a pawn in an apostolic con game.

Long, however, fails to address this objection-- which any devout, orthodox Christian would raise -- instead praising Toibin's cynical, self-loathing Mary as eminently believable:

[Toibin] imagines the mother of Jesus many years after the Crucifixion, living alone in the ancient Asia Minor town of Ephesus, where two of the Gospel writers supply her with food and shelter. They come to her with regularity. She is not cooperating.

“They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world,” Toibin writes in Mary’s voice to open his story. “They think I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep. Sleep escapes me.”

For those brought up among statuary of the Virgin Mother, this opening is nearly irresistible. Toibin’s temerity is a shock, of course, but it pairs with an avidness to imagine a Mary who speaks, and to hear what she might have kept locked away in her heart.

Just as the historical record indicates a physical Jesus existed, so must he have had a mother, a woman who ate figs and oranges, pulled water from a well and sweated in the Mediterranean sun.

Toibin’s Mary is long widowed, illiterate, handy with a knife. She doesn’t think Jesus’ death was “worth it.” She dwells with “the remnants of a terror we all felt then.” Like other traumatized people, she “has forgotten how to smile,” and also, how to weep.

But she remains keen, and cool to the disciples, whom she dismissed from the first day as misfits. When Jesus was arrested, she remembers, they were useless: “fools, twitchers, malcontents, stammerers, all of them hysterical now and almost out of breath with excitement before they spoke.”

In a few phrases, then, Toibin hints at the fanaticism that roiled around Jesus. The writer is brilliant at suggesting the ratcheting political dangers that squeezed Mary’s son — from the Romans, from the rabbinate. Word of this peril reaches the reader as it reaches Mary: via an untrustworthy “cousin” who arrives at her remote, country doorstep during Jesus’ final year.

This man, Marcus, has news of Jesus healing the sick, but that’s not what causes Mary’s fear to quicken. She, who has loved the Sabbath all her life, is focused on Marcus’ report that Jesus and his unruly friends “caused a fuss and made a crowd gather” on the holy day. This breach, not the lame walking, rouses her to intercept Jesus at Cana.

So Mary does what mothers of countless wayward sons have done: She tries to talk him into averting disaster. She hasn’t much interest in wine. In “The Testament of Mary,” Toibin’s radical shift in perspective is thrilling, defamiliarizing the familiar tale. Mary gives us a very disturbed Lazarus, his sisters Mary and Martha — and they rivet us anew.


Very early in the book, Mary takes stock of herself: “I realized from the way my breath came and the sudden slowness of my heartbeat that it would not be long before all the life in me, the little left, would go, as a flame goes out on a mild day, easily, needing only the smallest hint of wind.”

This is not the Mary ascending on a cloud, escorted by angels. But this is a Mary wholly worth attending. In his hammy, page-turning way, Dan Brown intuited that “the sacred feminine” was a hole in the Christian story, one that millions of readers relished filling with a conspiracy.

“The Da Vinci Code” was entertaining, and completely foolish. “The Testament of Mary” is something better, a reminder that Jesus indeed had a mother, and she was nobody’s fool.

My colleague Matthew Balan did an excellent job noting various areas where Toibin's Mary quite obviously departs from the biblical accounts we have of her actions. You can read that here.

It's pretty clear that Toibin's fictional work is predicated on the notion that Jesus's life and ministry were an utter failure. In the classic trilemma posed by C.S. Lewis, an intellectually honest Toibin would confess that in his estimation Jesus was either a liar or lunatic (or maybe both), but certainly not Lord. To pretend as many in the media do that Toibin's fictional account is a respectful but warts-and-all look into the depths of Mary's soul is preposterous.

To paraphrase the old saying, I was born-again at night, but not last night.